Sunday, September 23, 2012

WIsdom from a Chief Rabbi

As the Jewish High Holy Days draw to a close, if you need inspiration, try this recent On Being show.  Krista Tippett interviewed Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  Here are just a few insights, to whet your appetite:

"It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today, certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America, walk down the average Main Street and you will encounter in 10 minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.

So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is we're very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times said the rabbis — is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you're a stranger. And this sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear."

"The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don't think that God is as simple as you are. He's in places you would never expect him to be. And you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation because, when Moses at the burning bush says to God, "Who are you?" God says to him three words: "Hayah asher hayah." And those words are mistranslated in English as "I am that which I am." But in Hebrew, it means "I will be who or how or where I will be," meaning don't think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God's presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don't think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion."

"Look, the two very famous Jewish festivals, Passover and Tabernacles, it seems to me, you know, people can really relate to those. Passover, where we meet as families, this is a very important service that takes place not in the synagogue, but at home. We tell the story of how our ancestors were slaves, but we don't just tell the story. We reenact it. We eat the bread of affliction. We taste the bitter herbs of slavery. We drink four cups of the wine of freedom. And we hand that story on to our children and that is universal. That speaks to anyone who knows what it is to be a slave and all who needs to know what it feels like to be a slave so that they can be active in fighting the cause of people who are oppressed.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, and that won't be as familiar to many people, so say some more.

LORD SACKS: So that is when we recall the 40-year journey through the wilderness when the Israelites had no homes. They were just essentially like Bedouin. They were living in tents or shacks. So for seven days, we leave the comfort of home. We build a shack with only leaves for a roof, so we're exposed to the heat by day and the cold by night, and we just understand for seven days what it is to be homeless. Now how many of us, you know, in the West know what it feels like to be homeless? But we need to feel what it's like to be homeless because there are a billion people on the face of this planet who are pretty near as it gets to being homeless."

"It is about conversation and I think he was absolutely right. The real conflicts arise when our minds are focused on the past. We bring to bear a sense of grievance, injustice, victimhood, and we are then held captive by the past. If we could get Israelis and Palestinians to think simply of what would be best for their grandchildren, we would move into a new frame of thinking."

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